Sometimes it takes a beast to tame one…
Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Jason Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.
Made with an uncanny sensibility and nuance, The Mustang is a stark directorial debut that brings a measured sense of compassion to the hard existences of both man and animal as they co-exist in this very unique setting.
Co-Writer/Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has done something kind of unheard of for a French language actor turned director not only making her English language feature debut, but her feature debut PERIOD. She’s made a feature that is distinctly American yet one that still has some very European sensibilities by really diving into the humanity of a male character looking to resolve his formerly toxic ways.
She takes a fairly clichéd genre and breathes some genuine life into it as every frame that she presents on the screen not only is dripping with meaning but also with history and emotion. In a place where men historically go to give up, we actually get a glimmer of hope to the narrative. This filmmaker turns prison into a place of redemption and while there’s a degree of single mindedness to the entire narrative the execution of it is simply immaculate as the pairing of these violent offenders with these wild beasts that get herded into captivity. Neither the horse nor the man wants to be there, but they learn how to exist together and it provides these prisoners a sense of calm that is so necessary in their rehabilitation. It all gets kept to the absolute minimum and the humanity on display is what we are focused on as the entire film hinges on the excellent performances of its leading man.
Matthias Schoenaerts simply doesn’t get enough credit these days for being a masterful leading man. Here as our prisoner Ronan he just oozes the pain of a man who knows what he’s done and also knows the rage that he is capable but ultimately thinking that he isn’t redeemable in any way, until he discovers and ultimately embraces this world of horses and training these Mustangs for sale. He brings really subtlety and nuance to the role as he isn’t a mindless violent criminal, he is just at odds with the rage inside him which is something so many violent offenders have to deal with and his performance gives it a real humanistic face to this problem that a lot of people locked up face. He gives a face to the real costs of violence and it’s heartbreaking but also amazing to watch.
Jason Mitchell is strong as a fellow inmate and while Bruce Dern is essentially playing Bruce Dern here it’s exactly what was needed as world weary but sage trainer who is not only supervising the training of these horses but having an active hand in training these men at having a chance to potentially re-enter proper society.
The Mustang stands out from the pack because it’s an American story with the kind of sensitivity and self awareness that we just don’t see out of this genre…at least not with the kind of skill and nuance that it is executed with in this exceptional piece of cinema.